The curious case of the fallen apple tree: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 3 week 49 to Year 4 week 6

In a charity shop in Nottingham I found a guide book to the museums of Paris. After that, nothing would satisfy me, but to spend my birthday in the museums of Paris. In all our years of visiting and living in France, John and I had never made a joint trip to Paris. So we booked a charming sounding hotel in the Gobelins area, closed our blue shutters and drove off in early May across the rolling plains to Paris. We had a wonderful time looking at mediaeval art, Egyptian and Assyrian splendours, Impressionists in the railway station and Christofle silverware in the canal-side factory. Evenings in restaurants ranged from Georgian to Japanese. And our last morning concluded at the opening of an exhibition about the Jews of the Marais area and then with vegetarian fallafel wraps at a vibrant Israeli café.

Replete, we drove back across the rolling plains. The first sight of the blue mountains of the Vosges in the distance always tugs at my heart and makes me happy to be returning home. We drove into Entre-deux-Eaux, stopping at Danielle and Pierre Laine’s to collect our post. Unusually, they had no news of village life during our absence. On our windowsill we found a birthday Oleander from Nicola. Beyond the house, fragments of wood littered the road, and on the verge lay the shattered remains of our largest apple tree. Continue reading

The Rosetta Stone, djellabas, and cobra origami: life beyond Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 3 weeks 32 to 40

The Rosetta Stone was bound to cause trouble.

As the sparkling Christmas lights came down and falling snow created a siege mentality, our thoughts turned to Egypt and cruising along the Nile.

Until coming to France, we have never organised ourselves onto an organised tour group. A bit of snobbery perhaps, but also there’s more of a sense of discovery on your own. However, seeing Marrakech last year partially through French eyes (and stomachs!) had added to the entertainment. So when we got back to Entre-deux-Eaux after this Christmas in Nottingham and New Year in London, John investigated holidays in Egypt, flying from nearby Metz/Nancy airport. We ended up booking with last year’s French travel company.

Our cruise ship from Aswan to Luxor and back to Aswan was Cheops III. It was a mass of dark polished wood and dark red carpeting. At quaysides we docked parallel to other parked boats, through which we walked to reach land. The reception areas of these boats were sparkling, marbled and chandeliered. The queue for the ladies (on the return flight) pronounced our boat vastly inferior, and certainly not up to its five star ranking. “It would only be two star at most in France”, they agreed. They were also piqued because the crew did not speak very good French (we had found their English much better). Continue reading

Year 3 week 25 to 31 Burning Bush, Firemen’s Ball and Advent: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

It proved surprisingly difficult to find any fireworks. With friends arriving from Nottingham on November 5th, an appropriate welcome had originally seemed to be a party, fireworks, bonfire and Guy Fawkes. We checked with our local retired fireman He looked a bit startled at the prospect of his English neighbours burning effigies of Catholic plotters, but said that letting off fireworks in the middle of the country would not be a problem for cows or neighbours. However, local stores were less obliging. They contained stacks of seasonal scary halloween masks, plastic pumpkins, inflatable santas and tinsel, but no fireworks until nearer New Year. Our meagre bonfire ingredients were also sodden from weeks of rain. So we concluded that a large indoor dinner would be more enjoyable, even if a bit sedate.

John therefore made dinner preparations and we set out to pick up Sue, Alistair and their son Oliver from Basle airport. On the way back we lingered in one of our favourite gabled Alsace villages, Eguisheim – patisseries in the salon de thé, followed by wine tasting amid gigantic oak barrels in sixteenth century vaults. We got back to messages from Nicola and Dorinda: in a fit of depression at the U.S. election results, Nicola had made a substantial effigy of George W. Bush out of straw from Dorinda and Roger’s hayloft; then her retired-patisserie-making friends had told her of a tiny magic shop opposite their former patisserie (alas, now a hairdresser’s). Amid the magical tricks the shopkeeper did indeed have fireworks, which he was so delighted to sell out-of-season (even to the anti-Catholic foreigners) that he threw in a large squat mystery freebie. Whilst his family recovered from their 4 am start, Alistair scouted round for good (but not too good) wood to burn and constructed a platform and stake support for George W. Continue reading

Year 3 week 18 to 24 FIG, grapes, and apples: autumn in Entre-deux-Eaux

The season of mellow fruitfulness lasted for about 5 days. Now we are back to low cloud and incessant rain. It must be time for tranquil recollection of those few precious days of sunshine and a newsletter.

St Die really comes to life during its annual Festival International de Geographie, referred to affectionately by locals as le FIG. All the cafes and restaurants, after setting out their tables out on the pavements, propose a special geographical menu. The colleges, social centres, museum, library, and cathedral and cloisters all fling wide their doors for lectures and exhibitions. A curving row of wooden booths sprouts underneath the spreading white “wings” of the Tower of Liberty. Soon they are stacked with sausages, cheeses, wines patisseries, honey, jam, and coffees. Flags of the world festoon the Hotel de Ville and the main streets. Cars with the FIG logo dart between venues. Elegant ladies in colourful flowing FIG shirts welcome and inform. Lecturers, identifiable by large lapel badges and an air of self-importance, stride around the streets, bookshops and cafes. The forestry rangers re-create a (very small) forest by the Cathedral fountain, serve different forest soups each day (chestnut, pumpkin, garlic and ginger) from a huge cauldron suspended from three poles, play a forest game with young children, and display two rather sad forestry ponies (who obviously aren’t taken in by the re-created forest in the midst of paving slabs and traffic). And up in the Cloisters are tents with more foods of the world. Continue reading

Year 3 week 13 to 17 Wasps, tractors and vipers: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

This time last summer we were bemoaning the intense heat of the canicule which we had been enduring. But this year we are just so pleased to be enjoying September sunshine after a mostly overcast and wet August. Many wet days have been passed browsing nostalgic childhood books (which Helen has been steadily adding to on trips to the UK), genealogical databases like Ancestry (which John has used to confirm and expand his family tree) and donated glossy “Period Living” and “Country Living” magazines (what we could have done with our old farmhouse if only we’d abandoned the scruffy, utilitarian farmhouse image and employed a landscape gardener and trendy architect!)

We are, however, looking slightly more landscaped than last year, due to the purchase (at long last!) of a new, petrol-powered mower (not the sit-on that Helen hankered after, as various bits of our ground are too bumpy and with too many obstacles to make such a beast worthwhile). So John has extended the regular field mowing into the orchard. Unfortunately the old stumps and new suckers provided frequent obstacles and a fatal blow by a hidden tree stump soon bent the crankshaft. Quotes for repairs were astronomical – we could almost have invested in a new one! Fortunately a consultation over beers with Pierre Laine, proved useful. Before the beer he couldn’t think of any current repairers (all his generation of artisans having recently retired), but by the end of a glass he recalled a workshop in a small village nearby. Within 3 days our mower was repaired for about a third of the price we’d been previously quoted in St Dié, and the mower (and John) were back at work in the orchard. Continue reading

Year 3 week 5 to 12 The Vosges in summer: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

Tourism. Parasols, postcards, and pistachio ices outside cafes. Motorcyclists in black gear snaking up the mountains. Scarlet geraniums. Mannequin parades of storks. Low flying eagles. Luges hurtling downhill. If you’re tired of descriptions of rural tranquillity with only the animation of cows, hay-bales and vegetable gardening, here’s the “holiday edition” of the newsletter to tide things over (as, amongst other activities, we’ve been on holiday in the UK for a few weeks to see friends and relatives).

Our latest visitors stepped off the train from London via Paris and Nancy on Saturday evening, and by Sunday were fully immersed in the slightly idiosyncratic Blackmore version of tourism in the Vosges. First of all there was the foire aux brimbelles at Fraize. Confusingly, the word brimbelles does not feature in any of our dictionaries, but is another word for myrtilles or bilberries. The festival involved the 2004 Fraize Brimbelles Queen, various local folklore groups and singers, and a country lunch of more local specialities which don’t feature in our dictionaries (rounded off with a soft cheese, purple with brimbelles). As we didn’t get there until mid-day, all the produce and market stalls were deserted, the music had stopped and everyone was engrossed in lunch. So, since our visitors are librarians, one of whom haunts charity shops in search of rare books (he recently sold a proof copy of Harry Potter for a satisfyingly large figure), we moved on to the local old-book Mecca. This last Sunday of the month is the best time to visit our book village, Fontenoy-la-Joute. Many of the dusty stables full of books remain shut-up during the week, but on the last Sunday the stable doors are heaved open, additional stalls are set up, the paper maker demonstrates his art, the book-binder brings his lovingly tooled bindings, and musicians are crammed into a corner of the café terrace playing nostalgic Beatles tunes conducive to eating and book-purchasing. The tunes must have worked, as the rare-book friend left with a French novel he had a hunch about, the seventeen-year-old with a French comic strip book, and I with two Hammond Innes (in English) from the 1940s whose dedications I couldn’t resist. On the way back we stopped at the inevitable vide-grenier. This was not in a picturesque village, but in a car park by the dual-carriageway on the outskirts of St Dié. But it was a real treasure trove of bric-a-brac for a euro or less. Day One of tourism was rounded off by a John-special on the terrace, with cabaret of hot air balloon overhead, followed by stars and the Milky Way, two satellites, and nearly full pink moon in the domed night sky. Continue reading

Café flirtations, embroidery threads and maps: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, Year 2 week 50 to year 3 week 4

At the airport bookshop on one of my recent trips back from the UK (Helen writing here), I spotted a couple of books I wanted. As it was one of those three-for-the-price-of-two offers, I speculatively bunged in “Pretty girl in crimson rose” by Sandy Balfour. One of its many pleasures has been identifying with the process of an émigré becoming a resident, by making sense of the culture through learning the rules for solving its fragmentary clues as well as crossword clues. This sense of our remaining outsiders in French culture and in a small French village, whilst relishing the occasional small insights, links the following episodes of everyday life.

We often look at the carved inscriptions in the pink sandstone above local village doorways. When we first arrived, Entre-deux-Eaux’s finest old doorway was part of a ruined house, which has since been demolished, though the lintel is incorporated into a “feature” on the site of the old public lavatories near the church. However, neighbouring Mandray has retained many elaborate doorways and even produced a booklet about them. It is interesting how the act of clutching a booklet makes it quite acceptable, even flattering, to stare at someone’s house without being intrusive. Visiting friend Ann H. and I talked to many Mandray inhabitants at we familiarised ourselves with changing door and window architectural styles. The family returning from school for lunch to the most imposing maison de maitre, where we started our tour, were not the descendants of the original peasant-made-good. But the dear old man, whose garden we so fervently admired at the end of our stroll, had lived all his life in his house with the trough of running water outside, as had his parents and grandparents. And I recently saw a lovely little old woman outside; I wonder whether she is his sister or wife?. Continue reading